PJ: From the opening sentence of The Swansong of Wilbur McCrum we 'hear' Wilbur's voice. He's so far removed from your own world - how did you manage the ventriloquism?
BK: Looking back on it now, writing in the voice of a man born in the American West in the nineteenth century seems an unwise choice for a first novel, but, I've always enjoyed inhabiting characters who are as distant from me as possible. My inspiration for the book was a Timewatch documentary about a spectacularly unsuccessful Oklahoma outlaw who lived slightly later than my protagonist, and featured some people who remembered his death, or had been told about it by people who were around at the time. Their speech patterns filtered into my consciousness. I'm not sure at what point I began to hear Wilbur's voice - fairly early on, I expect - but how to transcribe it posed problems.
Researching dialogue was hard because so many of the portrayals of that time -
as with any historical period - are inauthentic. In cowboy movies saloon girls
seem to have access to a full range of 20th century cosmetics and hair dye, and
everyone has unfeasibly good teeth. I built up a large collection of
non-fiction books on the era, but didn't read many cowboy novels, as they were
mostly written long after, and are no more reliable a source than the movies.
The one exception was Owen Wister's The Virginian, and I also read the Little
House of the Prairie series, and Willa Cather's, O, Pioneers. To begin with I
used far more colloquial language and non-standard spelling, but soon realised
how hard that would be for readers, so I gradually reined it in until it was
much closer to standard speech, with a few dialect words and expressions
repeated fairly frequently. Some of these are authentic and some I may have
made up myself; even I couldn't tell you which now.
PJ: What other research did
the book require - landscape?
BK: The landscape was the hardest part for me to create. I'm not good at geography and I've never set foot in the States, so I'm often deliberately vague about where Wilbur is exactly. I use a mixture of real and fictional places because it was hard to be sure how long it would have taken to travel from one part of the country to another in those days. If some of his destinations are fictional, no-one can point a finger at me and declare that I've blundered. Besides, even if I'd been able to travel to the real places mentioned in the book, I couldn't travel back to how they were then; my job, like that of any fiction writer, was to create my own version of my characters' world, and to make it believable.
PJ: I know you worked on Wilbur over several years. Was there a time when you thought you might never finish it? What kept you going?
BK: Inevitably I grew fond of Wilbur and not only did I want to see how he turned out, I began to wish him well. The earlier drafts were much bleaker. I don't know if that always happens when you spend a long time with a particular character. Almost a decade passed from the writing of the first paragraph to the final publication date, and I certainly don't intend to spend so long on the next one! Of course I wasn't working on the novel all that time: I put it aside during the MA. I don't think there was ever a time when I thought I'd give up on it, but when I rewrote the second part it seemed to go on expanding. I began to feel like the ballerina in The Red Shoes who can't stop dancing, as if I would just keep typing until my fingers were bloody and the keyboard was smoking. Somehow I managed to reach a conclusion and hand it over to my editor and together we knocked it into shape.
PJ: How did it feel to finally realise the project?
BK: It's hard to say at which point the project was finally realised. Although in films writers are often shown triumphantly typing 'The end' and then bundling their manuscripts into an envelope to be sent to their publishers, in real life it's a much more long drawn-out procedure. My editor was making suggestions for cuts and changes at the same time as the cover designer was coming up with ideas and we were deciding on the blurb for the jacket and which photo to use. The moment I received the first proof copy was something of an anti-climax, as it had a plain cover that looked very boring. Seeing the finished product was obviously more exciting, but I'd already been given a copy of the jacket by then. The best moment was probably when my publicist sent me some pictures of the window of Goldsboro Books with a display made up entirely of copies of my novel. It was their book of the month for June, and they issued a special limited edition of 250 signed and numbered copies, for which I had to sign 500 sheets of paper, just in case I messed some up.
PJ: Doing the Goldsmiths Creative Writing MA part-time gave you a writing framework for two years - how did that change your writing?
BK: I gained so much from the MA. The first thing was that I became part of a group of writers who took my writing seriously. Although I'd submitted work for competitions - and had some success - I'd never shown anything to my friends and family and my daily life was occupied with caring for my children and doing my job. It was inexpressibly liberating to be around people who saw me primarily as a writer, rather than a mum or a colleague.
As I said, I chose not to work on the novel during the course, and instead concentrated on short stories. Because we were workshopping regularly I produced quite a number of these, and a group of us continued to meet after we graduated, so I've got quite a collection now.
I learned a lot from your workshops: I was particularly struck by what you said about trying to write for 20 minutes a day, rather than waiting for a time when you could devote several hours at a stretch to it. Previously I'd been beating myself up about the impossibility of producing anything of worth when I had so many other commitments, but I soon discovered how much could be achieved by writing little and often.
PJ: Life after MA - the framework has gone - what new framework have you constructed for your writing?
BK: The short answer is: none. I'm afraid that the tide of other stuff to do is flowing in again. My children and my parents require a lot of support and I'm doing what I can to publicise the book, so at the moment I'm hardly working on the new novel at all. I'm now involved in a Spread the Word project called Encompass that aims to train writers to run community workshops in creative writing. I'm hoping that, even though it's an additional commitment, it will give more structure to my working week, and I'll fit my writing around it.
PJ: Has getting published changed the way you see yourself as a writer?
BK: I think it has. I firmly believe that if you write, you're a writer; you don't need to be published to give yourself permission to use that description, but obviously I've now had feedback from a large number of people, most of them strangers with nothing invested in me as a person, and inevitably that's helped me to take myself more seriously. People have paid good money to buy my book and to come and listen to me talk about writing it - I've even had fan mail! Before I was published there were plenty of occasions when I asked myself what I thought I was doing, but once a publisher gave me a cheque I felt vindicated. I even described myself as 'a novelist' to some young man from the bank who was annoying me. That took me by surprise, but I'm getting used to it. My passport is up for renewal next year, and I still haven't decided what to give as my occupation.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked you abut the process of getting published and getting the book to readers?
BK: The surprise was that it happened at all, the delight was the way it was received, and the money - although I did accidentally put one of my advance cheques in the recycling bin and only just managed to retrieve it before it was collected (I'm not an orderly person) and the shocking part was the growing realisation of the importance of marketing. No doubt that seems naïve, but it wasn't until I saw that plain proof copy that I began to consider the importance of a book's cover, and the need to package it in a way that will appeal to potential readers.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit about the new book you are working on? Does it have a title yet?
BK: The new book is something completely different, and probably much closer to my usual work. It's a narrative with three main points of view, made up of memories of an elderly man in a care home, his daughter and granddaughter and spanning the period from just before the outbreak of the Second World War to the turn of the millennium. At least, that's what it is at the moment; in another few months it might be something else again - and no, I haven't decided on a title yet, although I've got one for the book after that.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
BK: Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man, which is less strikingly original than The Electric Michelangelo, but more assured and probably easier to read. I'm finding it interesting because it, too, has several points of view in alternating chapters, two of which are those of a father and daughter.
PJ: What advice would you give to someone just embarking on a first novel? BK: Don't, at least not if you expect to make a living out of it. Only a lucky few manage that, and not many writers of literary fiction. If it's something you truly want and need to do, go into it with your eyes open, be aware that getting a book published is like climbing a pyramid: the first step is to produce a manuscript that you're reasonably happy with; the second is to find an agent who will take you on; the next is to get a book deal, then to do the rewrites, and so on. It's not like bursting into a sunlit field and skipping through the buttercups, shouting 'I've arrived!' The chances are that your agent will probably sidle up to you at the launch and ask if you've started work on the next one yet. As for the process of writing: believe in yourself, because if you don't, you can't really expect anyone else to.